The title of Kate Christensen's new novel is misleading, if not downright wrong.
There is a man at the center of this book, a rebellious painter among the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, but Oscar Feldman wasn't great. Philandering, competitive, conscience-free, Oscar went above and beyond the stereotype of the badass artist—a little like Pollock, a little like de Kooning, but Jewish and obsessed with form—by having two complete families, not to mention a private life in his studio painting and bedding female nudes. ("He raped his models with his brushes," writes Christensen.) He jerked around every man and woman he met, and lied to live a life to his own specifications. A great painter? So Christensen assures us. A great man? No way.
Of course, this is the sort of gossip and scandal that make a culture indifferent to art actually take notice—how else to explain the constant real-life re-examination of Pollock? It's his legendary charisma and swaggering, nasty ways.
A scandalous life coupled with provocative work always stirs up curiosity, and so Oscar Feldman, five years after his death in 2001, is being examined by not one, but two biographers. They show up knocking and calling, disturbing the women who knew Oscar best, hoping to flesh out his mysteries and answer the seemingly important question of why Feldman stuck with figure painting long after it had become unfashionable. (The answer is revealed in a clever plot twist.) But The Great Man is less about art than about women—the filmy, intangible and deceased Oscar is just a pretext.
You wouldn't know from the book jacket, a single paintbrush against a buttery background under a smear of white gouache. The image is understated; the book is not. Christensen, whose novels include In the Drink (1999) and The Epicure's Lament (2004), intends this to be an ambitious, literary work that says something. But it actually says too much. In a relatively modest 300 pages, the author tackles the problems of aging, political correctness, race, love, writing, homosexuality (closeted and out) and adultery. Here and there, she wades into the shallow depths of the contemporary art world, and quotes some poetry along the way. In a book that arrived in time to be the final big read of the summer, it's rather heavy stuff, and the issues that Christensen handles less capably distract from what is her real and worthy passion: the beauty and relevance of aging women.
Yes, Christensen has written a book about old ladies. More precisely, the three old ladies who knew Feldman best. There's his long-suffering wife, Abigail, the sweet, traditional Jewish girl from his Brooklyn neighborhood, who's living out the end of her life on the Upper West Side with their autistic, now middle-aged son, Ethan, and who orders elaborate lunches from Zabar's. There's Teddy, the boho mistress and mother of his twin daughters (now in their 40s), who lives in the once-sketchy and now-trendy Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn; she remains whip-thin and glamorous despite her penchant for cooking up elaborate, erotic meals. And there's Maxine, Oscar's sister, a lonely abstract painter who's held out in her messy SoHo loft for a half-century and pines for her younger Hungarian assistant, Katerina.
Abigail and Maxine, who've stayed close since Oscar's death, have managed mostly to avoid Teddy; they didn't notify her when he died, so she learned about her ex-lover's demise from an obit in The Times. Which is also how we first meet him: The article is reproduced as a prologue to the novel. (At the end, we get a fake double review of the two biographies, also in New York Times style.)
When the two biographers come around (one is white, slightly disheveled and uses pen and paper, but rarely seems to take a note in the course of an interview; the other is black, fussy, closeted and uses a voice recorder, natch), dust is unsettled, old rivalries flare up, insecurities overwhelm. The women call a meeting to get their stories straight on one particular point—a mysterious bet that Oscar made with Maxine—and this is the first time Teddy and Abigail lay eyes on each other. As these things go, it turns out not to be nearly as bad as expected.
But these ladies are in their 70s and 80s—why would they get worked up? They've got things other than Oscar to worry about, such as their love lives, which are once again in full swing. Christensen drives it home again and again: There is life after 65.
It's a refreshing and worthy mission to restore sex and femininity to a group we consign to the old-age home long before we should, and this would be a better book if Christensen had spent all her time on that theme, left out the others—and tossed Oscar out the window. The most successful passages are those that explore the interior life of 84-year-old Maxine, a lumbering old lesbian who was practically incapable of allowing herself pleasure even as her brother continually gorged on it. Where Christensen has oversentimentalized Teddy, who insists that she was happy all those years with a mere slice of Oscar, she makes Maxine believably grumpy, full of longing and intelligence.
I wish the novel had been called The Great Woman and dedicated solely to the straight-talking Maxine, who's smarter than Teddy, bolder than Abigail and more talented than her dead brother. Her black-and-white abstractions never achieved the fame of Oscar's sumptuous nudes, but by the end of the book there's no question who was the better painter. She chain-smokes, drinks whiskey neat and looks at the world through narrow eyes. At a dinner party with a bunch of artsy types—dealers, installation artists, hangers-on—Maxine gets into an argument over what constitutes art: "Please excuse me if the answer is obvious and the question is retarded, but what the hell ever happened to truth and beauty?"
At her best moments, Kate Christensen inspires us to ask the same thing.